National recommendation accepted following investigation into police contact with murder victim Katrina O’Hara

9 Jan 2018 12:15 PM

A national recommendation to ensure at-risk victims of domestic abuse-related crimes are immediately given alternative means of communication when their phones are retained by police forces for investigative purposes, has been accepted by police chiefs following an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation.

Recommendations have also been made to improve Dorset Police’s response to domestic violence and harassment, following the IOPC, formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), investigation into police contact with Katrina O’Hara prior to her murder.

Ms O’Hara was stabbed to death in a barbershop in East Street, Blandford Forum, on 7 January 2016. Her ex-partner Stuart Thomas, also known as George Thomas, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 26 years in August 2016.

Our investigation looked at Dorset Police’s contact with both Ms O’Hara and Thomas, including the adequacy of the risk assessments and safety plan put in place for her, the decision to release him on bail after an incident a few days prior to the murder, and how his bail was managed.

The Ms O’Hara investigation report was published yesterday.

Officers were in contact with Ms O’Hara and Thomas on a number of occasions before she was killed, following an initial report of a physical altercation between them on 10 November 2015.

On 30 December 2015, following an incident four days previously in which Thomas reportedly threatened to kill both himself and Ms O’Hara, he was arrested, interviewed and released on bail. Ms O’Hara was in further contact with police reporting potential breaches of bail on 1 and 4 January 2016.

Investigators identified a serious issue when looking into the fact that Ms O’Hara was left without a means of communication after her phone was taken by police on 30 December 2015 as they investigated alleged harassment by Thomas. Her family felt this increased the risk she faced, and it is clear she was left afraid and vulnerable by not being able to contact police immediately if she needed to. A recommendation was subsequently made to help prevent this situation to all police forces in England and Wales.  

In response, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has written to all Chief Constables and Domestic Abuse leads across the country urging them to address the recommendation in their local policies and practice. The College of Policing has also agreed to revise its recently published domestic abuse advice to include text for forces to make arrangements to protect domestic abuse victims when their phones have to be seized for policing purposes.

Operations Manager Graham Beesley said: “I offer my condolences to Ms O’Hara’s family and friends for their terrible loss. Our investigation identified serious concerns with the service provided to Ms O’Hara. On a number of occasions when she contacted Dorset Police, officers failed to take appropriate action in a timely manner and did not take her specific needs and vulnerabilities into account. We also found instances where police did not properly consider the seriousness of non-violent risk factors, including the escalating nature of the incidents between Ms O’Hara and Stuart Thomas in the months leading up to her murder.”

It was recommended that Dorset Police should:

  • clarify their procedures for recording and dealing with breaches of police bail
  • revise their policy and training for call handlers around dealing with non-emergency calls made to the 999 emergency number, where risk may still be evident; and
  • ensure that people at risk of domestic violence who have their phones retained by police for investigative reasons, are provided the means to contact police or family if they need to.  

Dorset Police have accepted and acted on these recommendations, including introducing a system to provide temporary replacement mobile phones to people at risk, whose own phones are unavailable for policing reasons.

After discussion with the force, it was determined an acting sergeant and a detective constable had cases to answer for misconduct. They attended misconduct meetings in October 2017.

Misconduct was proven for the acting sergeant for failing to investigate Ms O’Hara’s report that Thomas has been harassing her and failing to risk assess and put in place suitable safeguarding measures for Ms O’Hara. The officer was given management advice.

Misconduct was also proven for the detective constable for not taking prompt and appropriate action following a report that Thomas may have breached his bail conditions, and the officer was given a written warning.

Dorset Police also agreed that a detective inspector and a police constable should be dealt with for unsatisfactory performance. A further three constables, a sergeant and a member of police staff had no case to answer for misconduct.

The investigation was completed in April 2017. Publication of our findings has awaited subsequent misconduct proceedings and the publication of the Dorset Community Safety Partnership’s Domestic Homicide Review.